The vaulted ceiling of the night sky was as magnificent as any cathedral. Millions of stars, brighter high in the mountains than they could ever hope to be in the city of Cascade, sparkled like diamonds high above, and the full moon bathed the forest in a silvery sheen. The choir of nature sang gloriously - the full alto of the owl's calls, the bass rumble of the river cascading over rocks worn smooth by eons of rushing water, the high soprano of the wind whistling in the pines, and the rich tenor of branches bending and bowing high above.
The beauty of the deep woods was not lost on its two human visitors. They sat at the edge of the forest beside the river as they had sat for hours in silence. There was no need for words. Between these two, their silences often felt more comfortable than when words littered the spaces between them. It was a comfortable feeling born through years of association, bred by deep trust, and nurtured in unconditional friendship. It was enough to sit under the vaulted ceiling of pines and listen to the music of the choir. It was enough to relax in a rare moment of utter peace and safety and contentment. It was enough to be together.
Both men sat with their backs against a cluster of smooth, gray boulders. Their campfire glowed and crackled before them, like a living thing sending its smoky tendrils upward to the stars, yet protesting with each breath the loss of its very essence. Had there been other eyes in the forest observing, they might have had difficulty distinguishing one from another while they sat so close together, as both men were shapeless bundles wrapped up in warm coats and blankets to battle the winter cold. However, there were no other eyes, no third human presence that night. Only two human heartbeats resounded through the woods.
Jim Ellison's eyes were closed as he rested his head back against the boulder. He did not sleep, yet his breathing was as calm and deep and steady as a dozing man's might be. He was aware of every sound from the forest around him. Here, away from the cacophony that was Cascade, the sentinel was not afraid to let his senses roam freely, to loosen the almost automatic control he placed upon his gifts and allow himself the rare pleasure of experiencing the world freely. His mind lazily catalogued all he touched...
The light caress of the breeze upon the exposed skin of his face and how it slipped so deftly through the day's growth of beard...the sound of an owl's wings beating silently as it glided across the river...the scratching of pine needles scraping against each other throughout the forest, millions and millions of tiny, rubbing strings blending their individual tones together in an orchestra of green...the multitude of different sounds the river made as it gurgled and rushed and dripped and flowed past them in night...the smell of pine and cedar and bear and musky soil and decaying leaves and...
...Blair...his partner's warmth seeping through the blankets and jackets to heat his arm where it pressed against Sandburg's shoulder...the moist puffs of breath in the cold, night air that drifted over to caress Jim's face...the soft sound of Blair's breathing and occasional deep, contented sighs...the familiar scent of his guide which lay beyond the surface scents of shampoo and deodorant and soap, the essence of Blair that Jim had no doubt he could recognize from among the scents of every man living on the planet, so deeply was it imprinted upon his heart and soul.
Sandburg stirred beside him, pressing more closely against Jim's shoulder, but the sentinel's eyes remained closed. He heard a slight click, and the detective immediately identified it as Sandburg checking the time on the illuminated dial of his watch, but Jim didn't ask for an update. It was New Year's Eve, and Ellison was certain that when the midnight hour was at hand, Blair would alert him to its approach.
Another New Year's Eve played out in the sentinel's mind. A lifetime ago, yet it still seemed so clear, so recent.
Another of William Ellison's famous parties, given for business associates and important contacts. In lieu of close friends, they served him well.
The large house was illuminated from top to bottom and valets parked costly automobiles. Inside, handsomely paid caterers scrambled efficiently to refill trays of delicious, expensive foods, and the guests drank and laughed too loudly at jokes that were only marginally humorous.
Young Jimmy Ellison peered down through the railings of the suspended balcony high above the festivities. His little brother, Steven, perched beside him, his blue eyes shining with excitement at the colorful scene. The chamber orchestra played a Strauss waltz as the guests floated by in their tuxedoes and evening gowns, jewels glittering at their hands and throats.
Then, their mother and father waltzed into the center of the entry hall below their sons' observation point. Jimmy smiled with delight at their mother's beauty. Grace Ellison was the epitome of her name, a perfect, blonde floweradrift on the musical breeze. Jimmy's heart swelled with pride and love as he watched his mother glide across the marble floor, her handsome husband guiding her efficiently among the throng of guests.
Without warning, the spell was broken, crushed forever by a pair of blue eyes. William Ellison happened to glance upward, his gaze zeroing in immediately on the entranced faces of his two sons. Seeing his attention diverted, first Grace, then several of the other guests followed his eyes.
At the look on his father's face, Jimmy's heart froze in his chest. All too often, he'd seen the same cold fury in William Ellison's eyes. He grabbed Steven's arm, propelling him away from the railing. Already, his sensitive ears could hear his father's breathing quicken, his heart beginning to pound in anger.
"Run," he whispered urgently. "Get to your room, Stevie, and don't come out!"
It was too late.
William Ellison had taken the stairs two at a time and was towering above the boys. Jimmy stared up at his father, amazed, even as his heart filled with dread, at the transformation from debonair gentleman to irate, fearful dictator.
"What the hell are you two doing up here?" Their father's voice was soft, yet cold, nearly emotionless. In spite of the low tone, Jimmy could hear all too clearly the dangerous undertones, and he began to tremble. "I thought I made myself clear, Jimmy. You are to remain in your rooms at all times this evening. I put you in charge of your brother, and look how you've disappointed me. How dare you disobey my instructions?"
Stevie was already crying, a soft, a barely audible sobbing, his face buried in his hands. Jimmy felt the tears welling in his own eyes, and his mouth opened to try to explain that they only wanted to hear the music and see the beautiful guests as they danced, but no words would come. Their father took a step closer, and Jimmy tried to scoot further away, but he was trapped when he bumped hard into the wall behind him.
Their mother appeared behind William, like a beautiful apparition in the midst of a storm. The music had stopped, and all eyes were now focused on the drama unfolding above.
"William," Grace said in a calm, clear voice for all to hear. "How nice that the boys came to see our guests. Isn't it a lovely party, Jimmy? Stevie? It's past their bedtime now, so why don't I go tuck them in? I'll only be a minute."
Breezing past her husband, her blue silk skirt whispering as she moved, Grace Ellison took her sons' hands. Her eyes met Jimmy's with an unspoken warning to remain silent.
As they brushed past William, Jimmy heard the angry words his father muttered in a nearly inaudible voice. "You ever dare interfere with my sons' discipline again, especially in front of others, and you will regret it, Grace."
Jimmy dared glance up quickly and caught the look of pure, barely contained rage in his father's eyes. Their mother never hesitated, but Jimmy felt the slight shiver that passed through her at the iciness in her husband's tone.
She sat with the boys for a long time that evening, perched on the cushions in the seat built into the bay window in Jimmy's room. The two young boys huddled close to their mother, her arms wrapped around them as they sat in silence. Three sets of blue eyes stared unseeing into the warm darkness beyond the cold lights of their impressive home.
At last, Grace whispered, "It won't always be like this, I promise. One day, you'll build lives of your own, and you'll be happy and free. Promise me, Jimmy...Stevie. Please promise me that you'll grow up and be happy." She hugged them close as they both whispered their ardent promises to their fearful mother.
A flash of light caught her eye. "Look!" Grace exclaimed. "A falling star! Quickly, boys, make a wish!"
Without knowing exactly why he thought of it at that moment, Jimmy remembered reading about omens in a book he'd checked out from the school library. People once believed that unexpected events like falling stars could signal great events to come or terrible disasters yet to be revealed. He shuddered as his young mind conjured up dreadful images of what the falling star on this New Year's Eve might foretell. He didn't mention his fear to his mother or brother, however, understanding instinctively that they might not comprehend the depth of his sense of foreboding. Instead, Jimmy shut his blue eyes tightly as the afterglow of the star faded from sight and wished hard that his mother would always be there to protect him against the dangers of the world and from the dangers which lurked inside his own home.
Please...please...please, he begged silently.
Not quite a month later, Grace Ellison vanished.
Jim stopped himself before he became too caught up in the unpleasant memories. That had been another time, another life. So long ago that his mother was a distant memory, sometimes wafting through his mind like a vague scent drifting by. Familiar, yet not quite recognizable.
Life had gone on. He was slowly rebuilding a relationship with his brother, and, if only superficially, with his father. At least, it was a beginning. He was no longer that frightened little boy. He was Jim Ellison, Army captain, Special Forces commander, and Major Crimes detective.
Not to mention the Sentinel of the Great City.
Jim smiled at the thought. Yes, he had come a long way since that painful New Year's Eve in his father's house. He had definitely come a long way. Maybe not in the direction he'd imagined, but that he was on the right road, Jim had no doubt.
He had done and seen things in his life others could barely dream of, yet those amazing experiences didn't take his breath away when he reflected upon them as one simple realization unfailingly did.
He was at peace.
After a lifetime of searching, of scouring the world and his own heart for peace, he had found it at last. Peace with who he was...with what he was. At long last, the inner demons that had tormented Jim with taunts reminding him of his own inadequacies had been silenced, and he was content with his life.
Glancing over at his companion, Jim sent up a silent prayer of thanks. In no small part, his happiness was due to his friendship with Blair Sandburg. His guide. His teacher. Even more than Steven, his brother.
An unlikely messenger, perhaps, but it had been Sandburg who drilled into Jim that he wasn't some kind of freak, as his own father had once called him, that while his differences made him unique, that uniqueness was a gift rather than a curse. A gift that could be harnessed and used for the benefit of his city...his tribe. It had been Sandburg's gentle, determined persistence that convinced Jim at last that he was worthy of friendship...of happiness...of being loved.
The sentinel looked skyward through the gently waving branches to the ebony heavens with their delicate pinpricks of starlight. He reached out with his enhanced sight, searching, hoping that the gift might come to him again on this night as he scanned the night sky.
Not sure if the slight fluctuation in light was the event he'd hoped for all evening, Jim nudged Blair gently with his elbow. "Look up, Chief. Watch," he whispered.
As if on cue, the meteor streaked across the sky, flaming brightly in its magnificence as it brightened the night sky for what seemed an eternity, but could have been no more than mere seconds, before blazing out in a burst of fire. Its image burned afterward in their eyes, so intense had been its flames.
Sandburg's voice was hushed, his eyes wide with wonder at what they had witnessed.
Ellison expected Blair to begin quizzing him about how he had known the meteor had been about to appear, when his guide surprised him yet again.
"Make a wish, Jim," Blair whispered reverently.
Conflicting emotions tugged at his soul. Gratitude for the presence of his friend, awe at the appearance of the meteor at just the right time in his life - again - and a deep, abiding affection for Blair and his unfailing understanding and sensitivity.
Unexpectedly, a stabbing fear gripped Jim's heart at the thought of the fragility of the life he cherished so deeply. Another year was ending, and he couldn't help flashing back to events gone by. The past few years had provided far too many instances when Blair had nearly been ripped from him, twice by the curse of his own insecurities.
Make a wish...
Jim Ellison was no longer a small child who believed in the magical power of wishes, but he fervently needed to believe that whatever powers there were ruling the universe could hear his silent wish. If they could hear, then perhaps they might have mercy on one lone sentinel. This time, Jim's wish was not for his own protection, but for the strength to protect what he held most dear, this life so closely bound to his own.
Keep him safe, please. I promise I'll do whatever it takes to protect him, just help me be strong enough. If I can't do it alone, please...keep him safe.
The alarm on Blair's watch chimed softly in the darkness.
"Happy New Year, Jim," the younger man whispered. "Happy 2001. Any resolutions?"
Taking a deep breathe, Jim wrapped one arm around Blair, pulling him close against his side. "Same one as every year, Chief. Same one as every year." He fell silent once again.
The quiet of the forest took over. The crackling of the fire...the sound of the wind...the little night noises of creatures slipping about among the trees. The first few minutes of the new year passed without words.
"So, what is your resolution, Jim?" Blair pried at last, his curiosity finally getting the best of him. He tried to catch a glimpse of Jim's face, but he found it nearly impossible, tucked up close against the larger man the way he was, and Jim seemed in no hurry to release him.
For long moments, Jim didn't answer, and when he did, his voice came from far away, from a place buried deep within his heart. "My resolution? That this year will be different, Chief. That you won't be endangered because of what I am. Because of who I am. That I won't do something stupid to tear us apart. Again." He chuckled softly. "You know...the usual."
Jim smiled as he felt Sandburg's head relax back to rest against his shoulder, and he welcomed its warm weight. Just that simple gesture lightened Jim's heart immeasurably with its message of trust and reassurance.
Blair shrugged before turning his eyes heavenward once more to gaze at the stars. "We just have to do the best we can, man. You know that. Neither one of us knows what's waiting for us out there...in the future...so all we can do is learn from our mistakes and muddle on the best we can. You won't screw up again, Jim. We're past all that now. No more secrets. Trust...talking it out...remember? It's gonna be a great year. I'm sure of it. Stop worrying, man. Relax and enjoy the moment, okay?"
"Okay, Chief." Jim took a deep breath of fresh, cold air, and suddenly, his spirit soared. "How'd you get to be so wise, Darwin?" Jim asked with a chuckle, hugging Blair a little closer as he felt the heaviness lift from his chest to be replaced by the warm contentment he'd felt only a few minutes before.
Jim could see his friend's grin easily in the darkness. "That's the deal, man. You're the strong, macho one, and I'm the sexy, smart one."
Whacking Blair lightly on the head and ignoring the accompanying indignant protest, Jim commented dryly, "Smart ass one, you mean." He paused a few moments, then added, "Happy New Year, Chief. Thanks."
In the midnight's inky darkness, a mother's son remembered the past with a mixture of love and regret as a father's son struggled to forgive. A long estranged brother sought reconciliation, and a determined sentinel prayed for strength. As the camp fire burned brightly in the night, a man treasured the closeness of his best friend, welcoming the new year with an optimism born of hope mixed with a touch of ambivalence in the face of the unknown.
Jim Ellison leaned back against the rock, drawing Sandburg with him and tucking the blankets more closely around them. For now, the night was quiet, and they were safe. Tomorrow, reality would intrude once more, bringing with it the dangers and stress that were to be expected in the life of a cop and sentinel. For now, there was only peace, contentment, and rest. The past was at rest, and the present nothing but a faraway mirage. He would take Blair's advice. He would enjoy the moment.
This night would pass, a night in many ways no different from all other nights. The new year would hurry past with all its accompanying joys and sorrows, accomplishments and regrets. Resolutions would be kept - or broken - and soon, it would be another New Year's Eve. With luck - or prayers or wishes or sheer force of will - they would see the cycle begin again, sentinel and guide, together.
Finis... and a very happy New Year to you all
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